The Curse of Fenric

Region 1

Region 2
VHS Video
(Doctor Who Story No. 158, starring Sylvester McCoy)
  • written by Ian Briggs
  • directed by Nicholas Mallett
  • produced by John Nathan-Turner
  • music by Mark Ayres
  • 4 episodes @ 25 minutes each
Story: Russian soldiers secretly gather near a seaside English base during World War II, unable to find half of their group or their sealed orders. Meanwhile, Ace and a worried Doctor help the base's deciphering expert Dr. Judson with his pet project to translate an ancient Viking curse carved into the crypts of the local church. Is there something lurking in the sea nearby, quietly claiming more and more lives from all sides? How many people know more than they are saying? Is there some unearthly mastermind behind it all, or has the Doctor finally outmanipulated himself?

DVD Features include:

  • Original 4-part broadcast version in stereo, with:
    • Audio commentary by Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace), and Nicholas Parson (Reverend Wainwright).
    • Isolated music track by Mark Ayres
    • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • Ultra-extended movie-length edit with new effects and 5.1 surround sound.
  • 1990 Nebula convention panel featuring the cast and crew
  • "Take Two" goes behind-the-scenes during the making of "The Curse of Fenric"
  • interview of writer Ian Briggs.
  • interview with costume designer Ken Trew.
  • "Recutting the Runes" featurette on the Special Edition with editor/composer Mark Ayres.
  • Mask modelling TV clips with Sue Moore and Stephen Mansfield
  • location recce footage and visual effects tests
  • clean title sequences in stereo and 5.1 surround sound
  • Photo Gallery
  • Easter Eggs

VHS Features include:

  • Partly extended edit of the show, in four parts, and with original stereo sound

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have
already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.

At last we come to what is arguably the very best story of the Sylvester McCoy era. This one is chock full of elements that uniquely define this time of the program, and all of them seem to be, for the most part, quite well done in this story.

Particularly in light of all that went wrong with the previous story, it is worth noting that the considerable roster of mostly interesting characters that we have in this story are almost all fairly normal, particularly in the situations they spring from and the goals they appear to have. This makes it easier for the audience to understand them and get emotionally invested in them, and it makes those things that are not so normal stand out better and become worthy of our attention and the Doctor and Ace's investigation.

The Doctor and Ace themselves get the bare minimum of introduction in this tale. The TARDIS makes next to no impact on the adventure, merely depositing our characters into the setting with a decent materialization, and then getting completely ignored afterwards. It probably would be an improvement to establish exactly why they chose to come here. Early episodes can kind of get away without it if you assume they arrived randomly and simply wanted to explore where they are, as often happened in the Patrick Troughton era. However, both the level of precise geographical knowledge displayed in their opening dialogue, not to mention later developments in the story, added to the fact that Ace has already made the effort to dress for the period, all make it much more likely that this landing was an enigmatic choice. As it stands anyway, their early scenes are so enjoyable, and so easily understandable, that one forgives this fairly readily. The balance between creating mystery vs. creating confusion has been much, much better looked after in this script.

While there is little doubt that this adventure stands out positively in McCoy's era, it still remains shy of some elements that previous Doctors' eras thrived on. As we encounter strange phenomena here in "The Curse of Fenric", it seems little is done to establish credible scientific theories behind this, or in fact use scientifically plausible reasoning to explain the plot mechanisms that our bizarre new antagonistic forces must work through and/or can use to attain their goals. The story is much more focused on a sort of magical folklore. It doesn't quite beg for more explanation to the same degree as most of the other candy-horror stories of this era that try to set up shop in the real world instead of a mental dimension. "The Curse of Fenric" isn't really in candy-horror territory, but is probably sitting somewhere not too far from the border.

And, I have to give the story a lot of points for the idea of the psychic energy of faith becoming one of the story's major mechanisms here. Even if a reason for the Haemovores' response to it is still a bit vague, it's every bit as cool as most of the uses of mental powers that we saw back in season twenty, while partly triumphing in finding the "better way" that seemed to elude the violence-fests of season twenty-one and beyond. While a hint of the old passive-aggressive syndrome peaks through, particularly with Dr. Judson, such things are the tools of the villains and aren't powerful enough to overshadow the other interesting dynamics at play here.

It does become clear that aiming for horror and fears and scares is one of the aims of the script, and not one that I am ever particularly impressed with. However, the success here is that it is only one of many goals, and it never quite overpowers the more prominent explorative ideas like code-breaking and seeking to understand curses, histories, cultures, and character motivations. In fact the tapestry remains quite rich as we get a mix of 1940's English, Russian, and German culture, added to which is a lot of ancient Viking. Writer Ian Briggs does a lot of research to make all of this come alive in his script, along with some clever mathematical and computer concepts to give it all a fascinating lift.

Armed with an exceptional script, the rest of the production team then pulled out the stops to make the finished product special in many other ways as well. There's a ton of gorgeous, atmospheric location work in this one, particularly where the vistas include the sea. In fact, the team decided at a late stage to abandon BBC TV studios altogether and shoot the whole thing on location, which helps give it a believability and credibility that helps keep audiences in the story. Director Nicholas Mallett seems a strange talent for having directed both Sylvester McCoy's worst story "Paradise Towers" (no. 149), and now his best story here. As such his final kudos are well earned. Indeed, script content for this story won't carry the production on its own. This one could have flopped rather easily if not handled properly, and the director and all his actors deserve praise for keeping the tone correct and serious as appropriate to the needs of the story.

Composer Mark Ayres turns in another impressive and effective musical score for this story, helping to emphasize the life in the buried mysteries that is slowly bubbling up into the light of day, and of course backing the ensuing action and pandemonium excitingly. As usual, there are a lot of musical themes in play here, all woven into a tapestry as rich as the story itself. While his score for "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy" (story no. 155) is still a bit more enjoyable to listen to, "The Curse of Fenric" is a very close second.

Music by Mark Ayres
The complete score is available on:
Audio CD - The Curse of Fenric
Silva Screen FILMCD 087

More info & buying options

A selection of cues (some edited) is also available on:
Audio CD - The Best of Doctor Who Volume Two
Silva Screen SSD 1042

More info & buying options

For the most part, the story's prosthetic masks work fairly well. The Ancient Haemovore isn't quite up to the same level as the Destroyer from "Battlefield" (story no. 156), particularly in giving a convincing lip-sync for his dialogue, but in the end he turns out to be more emotive anyway and a more interesting character.

The concluding dynamics are worth noting, in some ways reflecting "Return of the Jedi" and similarly aiming for high ideals while falling a bit short, but this story gives the Doctor a more proactive "final fix" than what Luke Skywalker had. There is a lot of action amongst the troops, and without the audience really being able to root for either side, but this is okay since it is partly a story point. I must confess that no matter how many times I see this one, I still find it nearly impossible to understand what is actually motivating Commander Millington.... no matter how many layers one peels off of his onion, he still seems to be a few too many cards short of a full deck. That's not entirely a bad thing, but it doesn't feel like that was all that was intended. Interesting too is the way gratuitous references to details of previous McCoy stories crop up in the climactic dialogue, almost giving this story the same artificial sense of importance as a Russell T. Davies season finale. I think we can see here where another modern pattern actually began. At least "Logopolis" (story no. 116) wrapped up its season with more tangible extensions of elements from its other stories. Curiously, this story's coda begins with Ace needing to resolve one issue in the field, and then switches to another issue at the seaside, which she apparently resolves in a rather wet and unconvincing manner that doesn't take this member of the audience along with her. Weird... but it doesn't really spoil an adventure that otherwise works quite well.

Well, if others haven't convinced you yet that this is the must-buy story for the Sylvester McCoy era, let me add my voice onto the pile. You may first want to go through an arc of prior stories, including "Dragonfire" (story no. 151), "Remembrance of the Daleks" (story no. 152), "Silver Nemesis" (story no. 154), and "The Greatest Show in the Galaxy" (story no. 155), but in that case, don't stop until you've got "The Curse of Fenric" as well. This one is easily the big winner of season 26, although more good stuff is yet to come....

International Titles:

Deutsch: "Die Todesbucht der Wikinger"

Magyar: "Fenric átka"

Français: (La malédiction de Fenric)

Русский: "Проклятие Фенрика"

The Germans went back to the water's edge for their title for this adventure, settling on "The Death-Bay of the Vikings".

This story is available on DVD and VHS video.
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VHS Video
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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "Survival"

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